Dr. Thomas Russell smiles every time the subject of his naval service comes up. He sits up a bit straighter in his chair as he recalls his time on the USS Ticonderoga during the Vietnam War, and how he felt about the men he cared for as the aircraft carrier’s flight surgeon.

“I was assigned various squadrons of pilots, and my job was really to make sure that [they] were safe,” he says. “It was very important for the flight surgeon to really integrate themselves and to really associate with the pilots; so if there was a problem, they would feel free to come to [me].”

Thomas Russell

He lets out a small chuckle when he realizes how much he used to fly in his younger days on the South China Sea.

“I probably wouldn’t have the nerve to do it today, but I did a lot of flying on and off that carrier,” he says. “I loved the Navy.”

Almost 50 years later, Russell sits at the dinner table of his sister’s apartment in San Francisco. He’s trying to cut bread with a set of oversized silverware, but his left hand won’t cooperate.

“C’mon,” he whispers, “you can do this.”

A tumor, which led to physicians taking out a part of Russell’s brain, left him “hazy” and unable to perform daily tasks. A few weeks ago, while he was out for dinner with friends, he realized that cutting food had become too problematic for him. Somebody else had to cut up his steak that night, and it didn’t sit well with the former surgeon and U.S. Navy Veteran. Now, he’s practicing with bread to regain mobility and function.

“You take things like this for granted when you’re young and healthy,” the 74-year-old says, slowly moving the fork and knife back and forth until he saws a piece in two. “I used to cut people open for a living. Now, cutting bread is hard.”

While he admits that it would be easier to stay in bed and watch TV all day, he continues to fight and move forward with his life. Later in the day, his wife will drive him to the San Francisco VA Medical Center where he’ll do more physical therapy.

“I used to go to VA for chemotherapy and for infusions,” he says as he looks up from his self-appointed mission, “but today it’s mostly about rehabilitating myself … trying to get more function in my left hand and left arm and trying to become more coordinated in my activities.”


Ticonderoga OR

Dr. Thomas Russell (left) performs a surgery onboard the USS Ticonderoga.

Four years ago, Russell was suffering from pain in his lower pelvis. It had become unbearable, and when he couldn’t tough it out anymore, he sought medical attention. When Russell, the former head of the American College of Surgeons, found out it was multiple myeloma, he set out to get the best care possible. That meant reaching out to his colleague and friend Dr. Robert Owen at the San Francisco VAMC.

They were residents together at the Fort Miley Veterans Administration Hospital after graduating from medical school in the ’60s, and both served during the Vietnam War under the doctor draft. While Russell went on to private practice after his service, Owen stayed on at VA where he is now the environmental health physician at the San Francisco VAMC.

“Every VA medical center has an environmental health physician who’s in charge of dealing with the registry programs,” Owen said. “When [Thomas] had a diagnosis in late 2010 of multiple myeloma, which has been associated with Agent Orange exposure, he spoke to me and I told him that, by virtue of that, he had an entitlement to come to the VA as a Vietnam Veteran.”

He took the Agent Orange examination and was added to the registry. The cancer of his plasma cells was now linked to his service on the Ticonderoga, and Russell could get all of his care at VA.

“The VA no longer tries to discern specifically how and where one was exposed,” Owen said. “If anyone served at any time in one of the Agent Orange areas, then it’s presumptive that they were exposed. Any of those conditions that have been associated with Agent Orange exposure can be treated without co-payment.”

But why would a career physician who has worked at premier medical facilities in the United States want to get his care at a VA hospital? For Russell, the answer is simple: because he’s a Veteran and the care is on par with the best hospitals that the country has to offer. In fact, he sees VA as leading health care in many respects.

“[VA] care fits with my philosophy of medicine,” Russell says with a smile. “It’s state-of-the-art care, and I say that as a professional, because I’ve been involved [in] taking care of patients in the private sector. I have tremendous regard for the care that you get at VA.”

So, like 9 million other Veterans across the country, he began care with the Veterans Health Administration. He started with chemotherapy and infusion treatments to fight the multiple myeloma, and when he suffered an episode of left-sided weakness that revealed a brain tumor, he continued to get care at the medical center. Now, after brain surgery, a therapist works with him for an hour a week and monitors his progress.


Thomas Russell grimaces with every exercise and movement, but he doesn’t stop.

“Can you do two more?” his physical therapist asks as she holds his left arm up in the air.

“Yeah,” he says as he grits his teeth.

Dr. Thomas Russell quote

She guides his frail arm down across his chest and then back up again. “Good job,” she says with a smile. He nods.

When it’s time to leave, he thanks all the employees in the room and walks out slowly with the help of his wife and the walker. He’s tired and a little winded, but he’s still self-aware and introspective. He talks about how his transition from doctor to patient has been a painful one, but also an eye-opening experience.

“It’s not easy to be a patient, and I think that, in some respects, I kind of wish I had been a patient before I became the physician,” he says. “I would have been more sensitive to the needs and the responsibilities of being a physician.”

That afternoon, sitting in a chair that overlooks part of San Francisco, he starts to talk about his fellow Veterans who might not think to get their care at VA. Even when he is at his weakest, the doctor and Veteran can’t help but think of others’ care.


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“It’s not charity, you know,” he says. “This is because you served your time, and you did something for the country … you’re entitled to it.”

He says he knows VA isn’t perfect, but then what health care system is? He wonders out loud what it might have been like if he stayed on with VA as a physician, and admits openly that the way the system works now is far better than when he was a resident.

It bothers him a bit that VA “gets such a bad rap in the news,” even though it has helped him so much, but he understands that the good stories don’t always make the front page. He just hopes it doesn’t keep other Veterans from looking to VA for care.

“You know, I would say anybody that’s been in the military and has been discharged should definitely look to the VA as a benefit, because the care is superb, in my opinion,” he concludes. “You’ll find VA to a be a very nurturing and very attentive healthcare provider, as good as I think you’ll find anywhere. I wouldn’t go anywhere else for my care.”

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Published on May. 14, 2014

Estimated reading time is 6.9 min.

Views to date: 134


  1. RCB Lewis June 3, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Dr. Robert Owen at the San Francisco VAMC
    Some questions;
    How did Dr. Russell “prove he was (in) Vietnam”?
    I filled claims in 1977, 1986 and 1991.
    from 1991 to (late)1993 I submitted form after form to substantiate as a Blue Water Navy veterans that I had served “in” Vietnam. In 92 a WWII, German POW Vet introduced me to His DAV service officer and after hours of his finding my DoD records, a copy of a VA claim # from th70’s and Nam military awards, metals and including the Navy Combat Action Ribbon, he filled out the proper VA Forms w/ copies of the records he found.
    Then and only then did the VA claims div. accepted my claim for “Service Connection.”
    Congratulations Dr. Russell.
    Tell us when you flew into Vietnam off of the Tico and where you landed.

  2. lloyd granaas June 3, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Dear gentleman:
    I served on two (2) air craft carriers off the coast of Vietnam. the USS Oriskany Cva-34 and crossed decks on to the USS Shangri-La CVA-38 witch was in DA NANG Harbor. I have had three C& P exams by the VA. All three said that I had all most all of the agent orange presumptive diseases. Still I was turned down for disability. Two years ago I was serving on a usns ship and got sick. I went to a doctor and found I have (NHL) . The VA still says it is not due to agent orange and will not give me agent orange disability. They gave me disability for (NHL) but not for Agent orange, and yet the IOM says it is very plausible I could have gotten it because I was in charge of the aft. engine room and worked with all of the contaminated water in the bilges and they did not study my case or any others like mine. So my question to you is why was I denied when I have so many more problems than his.

    Mr. Lloyd P. Granaas MM2/USN
    Vietnam 68/70

  3. Darcy Lloyd June 3, 2014 at 8:48 am

    So glad that Dr. Russell got the medical help he needed and earned but this whole article brings tears to my eyes. My husband who served on the USS Stribling for the WESTPAC tour of 1969 and spent 12 hour shifts on the firing line earned these benefits also. When he needed the VA most all he received was more paperwork and denial until he died in October of 2003. So can some one please tell me how Dr. Russell sailed through the system with a smile on his face to receive his earned benefit. Was my husbands crime not knowing the right official to help move his claim forward? Please stop putting out this information and giving some Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veteran false hope. Can’t believe I read this on the VA’s own blog! Don’t believe they even know how bad the Blue Water Navy is being treated!

  4. E N Ofstad May 23, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    This officer served on the same carrier as I did, Two westpac cruses 1965-66 and 1966-67 with around 350 days on line Dixie and Yankee station, yet he receives benefits and services that others do not or can not receive because of a ruling and a statement by the VA….. What is going on here???? If one gets the benefits, we all should get the benefits…..

    From the article
    He took the Agent Orange examination and was added to the registry. The cancer of his plasma cells was now linked to his service on the Ticonderoga, and Russell could get all of his care at VA.

    “The VA no longer tries to discern specifically how and where one was exposed,” Owen said. “If anyone served at any time in one of the Agent Orange areas, then it’s presumptive that they were exposed. Any of those conditions that have been associated with Agent Orange exposure can be treated without co-payment.”

    We were offered help with co-pays and medication in a letter sent in the early nineties then the VA arranged to have all of our benefits removed….I was not diagnosed with the first concerns until 1999 and when I inquired I was first flatly denied then when I applied and supplied all the hundreds of pages of documentation for type 2 diabetes and peripheral neuropathy these were denied without even a fare review or asking me a single question… The only determining factor was boots on the ground… I have since had surgery for peripheral neuropathy and years of PT, suffered several heart attacks had two heart surgeries and have had to revert to being part of a drug companies blind study to get help with managing my diabetes….We no longer are even considered a Vietnam Veteran, instead Vietnam era Veteran..
    This statement is an outright lie and it is being promoted by the current regime…. Now is the time to strike and strike we must…. I am fed up with the treatment we receive….We can not get our lives back but at least they can pay for our medication and health care…HR 543 is still an open issue in the current congress and it must be passed… We are dieing at the fastest rate in history and then we hear that a chosen few are given what the rest of us have earned and are denied….

  5. Susie Belanger May 23, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    My husband also served on the USS Ticonderoga. In fact, my dad had the Red Cross send out a telegram to the ship when our first son was born. He served 1966 to 1967.
    Thank you for your service.

  6. Nancy Hood May 23, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    It took the VA 18 months to do anything about the bladder cancer my father was diagnosed with in 2005. The care he received when he went in for his surgery was atrocious. I saw IV tubes dangled into trash cans and banged against the side of them to drain them, then they were re attached to the IV line. A man that was just given two weeks (I know this because the doctor did nothing to provided privacy to the patient whewhen he gave him the news) asked the nurse to raise his bed and the nurse sighed loudly and told him that wasn’t HER job because he wasn’t HER patient.

    I was born after my father’s service. I am now suffering the effects of a war I wasn’t even alive for. The VA does not care. If I were a surgeon during that war, of course they would care. But without that inside connection, it just doesn’t matter.

    • John Rossie May 23, 2014 at 5:10 pm

      If Thomas Russell is receiving Health Benefits and Compensation from the VA, and if his only service was on the USS Ticonderoga, and he never set foot in Vietnam, then he is receiving his Benefits illegally, per the VA Compensation Division regulation. Blue Water Navy sailors who did not have boots-on-ground are categorically denied those benefits. VA clearly states that no one who was other than Boots-on-Ground can receive Health Care and Compensation for herbicide-related diseases. Dr. Thomas got through the system, perhaps with inside help, while thousands of other Blue Water Navy sailors are routinely being denied their benefits. So, what gives? The VA is being very selective and fickle in providing benefits. We don’t begrudge him the care he receives, but we’re pretty upset that the VA is not consistent in their rules. Perhaps it is because he was an officer? The rest of us are left out in the cold!

  7. DrJLDneurology May 21, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    Justavet: I was a doctor in Vietnam, and am 100% disabled from events while there. I, too, receive VA care, and it is not because I am a doctor or have “buddies” there. I am seen and treated the same as so many other veterans…with attentive and excellent care.

    I have watched many veterans over the years who received the same treatment who surely knew no one working in the hospital.

    I have noticed over the years that there are some very bitter veterans who did not qualify as disabled. Some of them take it out on the VA by hating it and anyone who professes to have been treated well by the VA.

    Thank you Dr. Russell for your service and for your service to your fellow citizens after your military service ended!

  8. Glenn W. Raynard Jr. May 20, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    I am very pleased with the care at the VA facilities in Arkansas and in Missouri so far and if I had not have gone to them in times of need I would not know what is wrong with me My wife encouraged me to use The VA because it is a hospital and clinics for Veteran’s They have very good care you could not ask for better Care out there,My Wife’s Dad was a U.S. Navy WW11 Veteran 100% disabled and her Brother had Agent Orange from Vietnam and her other Brother uses the VA too,Both her Dad and her Brother are passed away he Dad died in 1990 and her Brother in 1999 of Agent Orange but their memories live on for their sacrifice to this Country I am a Vietnam era -Desert Storm Retired United States Air Force Veteran and am proud my wife took me to them and held my hand on one side and they on the other she did not serve in the Military herself but she has been my partner long enough to tell you The VA is #1 in her eyes too she was her Dads and Brothers strong arm in their life too..I just wanted to give my wife some Honor too because she deserves a Big Thank-You too..Thank-You VA for Your Service To This Country and To All The Veterans Proud of you…

  9. thomas gomez sr May 20, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    i only trust the va also. so they can say what they want. i never got better care. but people do have to understand. the va is so big. its up to you not to fall through the cracks. raise your hand . they will see it.

    • Lynn Tice May 31, 2014 at 11:07 am

      I have received excellent care from the VA. It is all about the veterans that cannot get in to this organization. Also the ones cannot get much needed health care. GOD help it to be only a few!!!!!!!!

  10. Ted Abbott May 15, 2014 at 9:12 am

    Being that Dr Russell was in the Navy and lives in San Francisco and may have a interest in being on the water again I suggest he contact Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors (BAADS). Having been a member for over 10 years myself and having a disability, BAADS has both small and large sailboats and volunteers and instructors willing to work with any disability of any age. I taught a wheelchair bound gentleman who was in his 70’s to sail. BAADS located at Pier 40 and the small sailboats sail at McCovie Cove by the ball park. Big sailboats sail the whole SF Bay.

    I 1st signed up with the VA at the San Francisco VA in 1979. Now living in Richmond, VA and VA is my primary health care provider.

    Fair Winds, Blue Skies,
    Ted A Air Force, 1971-1975

  11. Jim T. May 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    My son-in-law who is in the Army Reserves talked me into signing up for VA Healthcare. I don’t know that I would have ever done it on my own. He told me, if you need it you got it and if you never need it o.k. So I signed up for it and in a few days I received my eligibility number. I was directed to go to my nearest CBOC for a physical. I did this and found that I had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart murmur, glaucoma, high blood sugar but not quite diabetic in addition I had a macular scar in my left eye which had all but destroyed my central vision. I feel that I have received care at the VA that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. My vitals are under control and I received an aortic valve replacement on May 2 2014 at the Ralph H. Johnson VAMC in Charleston, S.C. I have had a sleep study performed by VA. I receive eyeglasses because of having actually one eye. I also received mental health therapy at the CBOC in Rock Hill, S.C. I use myhealthvet.com which I feel to be a necessity. Like everything else you need to be able to navigate the system. I only wish that there was more help out there for the vets who do not have computer access. I carry a Humana Choice PPO which should help VA recoup some of the expenses that they have incurred because of my health problems. This will enable them to see more veterans who do not have insurance. Thanks to the doctors, nurses and all the staff at the CBOC in Rock Hill, also WJBDorn VAMC in Columbia and certainly the staff of doctors, surgeons, nurses, ICU and all at the Ralph H. Johnson VAMC in Charleston, S.C. I wouldn’t still be here without them. Thanks to you all.

  12. Ed Miller May 14, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Ed Miller Viet Nam 1968 to 1969-I also waited for 38 years before I went to the VA as the pain in my legs hurt more everyday as I hurt them in June 1969 and I went to the Battle Creek VA and when I walked in slow they had me go straight toma room and they looked and checked out my legs and put me into the hospital and I have always recieved the get service from all the doctors, I feel that if the doctors would not have made their findings I would now be in a wheel chair. All VA clinic’s are very good at their jobs for us vertrans.

  13. justavet May 14, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    And, it doesn’t hurt to have a Doctor on the inside you know. Also, does anyone really think the VA would screw with a guy who knew what healthcare is about?

    • Norm Walters May 15, 2014 at 12:38 am

      That is exactly my opinion of this story, also. I know for a fact that so many other veterans do not and would not get the same quality of care of this doctor who was being seen by one of his “old friends.” We “regular” veterans are treated much differently so maybe this doctor needs to check himself into another VA hospital some where and then he will see some of the horrid stories that he was talking about is true when they start treating him that way. I wish him the best, but; I think ALL vets, whether they have “connections” or not should get the same healthcare and not be bullied and demeaned by some of the staff at certain VA facilities.

      • Jerry Beckett May 17, 2014 at 10:05 pm

        After 29 years in the Army, serving mostly in 3rd world countries, 68 months in Vietnam, I truly believe the worst care one could receive in a VA Hospital in America would be far superior to the treatment one would receive and still receives in those countries. For sure, we have problems and people should be identified and held accountable for their actions, but the grass is not always greener, no sometimes, there is no grass at all. I thank God every day that I was born as an American where things are definitely not perfect, however, in comparison to what I have witnessed and seen, there is no other place like home, like my American home.

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